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Hawaii Commits to Transit Decarbonization in Settlement of Youth Climate Lawsuit

The plaintiffs in the case alleged Hawaii violated their rights by investing in fossil fuel-intensive infrastructure.

Youth plaintiffs gather before the start of the Navahine F. v. the Hawai'i Department of Transportation hearing at the First Circuit Environmental Court in Honolulu, Hawaii, on January 26, 2023. Pictured left to right: Ka’ōnohi P.-G., 16; Kawahine‘Ilikea N., 13; Taliya N., 15; Navahine F., 15; Mesina D.-R., 15; Kalā W., 19; Rylee K., 15; and Kawena F., 10.

Days before a case brought by 13 young climate advocates in Hawaii was set to go to trial, the state’s governor and Department of Transportation on Thursday announced an “unprecedented” settlement that will expedite the decarbonization of Hawaii’s transit system — and formally “recognizes children’s constitutional rights to a life-sustaining climate.”

The plaintiffs in Navahine v. Hawaii Department of Transportation were between the ages of 9 and 18 when they filed their case in 2022, alleging that the state government was violating their rights under the Hawaii Constitution by investing in fossil fuel-intensive infrastructure that would worsen the effects of the climate crisis.

The case is the first youth-led legal challenge addressing constitutional rights related to pollution from the transportation sector, and according to Earthjustice, which represented the plaintiffs along with Our Children’s Trust, the settlement is the first agreement “of its kind, in which government defendants have decided to resolve a constitutional climate case in partnership with youth plaintiffs, committing to comprehensive changes” to reduce fossil fuel dependence and emissions.

Under the settlement, the Hawaii Department of Transportation (HDOT) agreed to “plan and implement transformative changes of Hawaii’s transportation system to achieve the state’s legally established goal of net-negative emissions by 2045,” said Earthjustice.

Specific actions the HDOT agreed to take include:

  • Establishing a Greenhouse Gas Reduction Plan within one year;
  • Creating a lead unit and responsible positions within HDOT to coordinate the mission of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction throughout the agency; oversee climate change mitigation and adaptation for the highways program; and ensure public highways are upgraded to be accessible for all users, ages, and abilities;
  • Establishing a volunteer youth council to advise on HDOT’s mitigation and adaptation commitments in the years to come;
  • Improving its transportation infrastructure budgeting process to prioritize reduction of GHG and vehicle miles traveled (VMT) and transparently analyze and disclose the GHG and VMT impacts of each project and the overall program; and
  • Making immediate, ambitious investments in clean transportation infrastructure.

The department agreed to complete pedestrian, bicycle, and transit networks within five years, dedicating a minimum of $40 million to expanding the state’s public electric vehicle charging stations by 2030.

Earthjustice credited HDOT Director Edwin Sniffen with taking “unprecedented leadership to negotiate a resolution and embrace the government’s kuleana (responsibility) to lead the way on bold and broad climate action.”

The Navahine youth plaintiffs, said Julia Olson, founder and chief legal counsel of Our Children’s Trust, “activated the courts and inspired true democracy in action — all three branches of government committing to work together to do what needs to be done according to best available science, to safeguard their futures.”

“Our courts are essential guardians of children’s constitutional rights and empowered to protect the planet, but they rely on our collective engagement,” said Olson. “Young people across the country and around the world will follow in [the plaintiffs’] footsteps, carrying the same values of care, defense, and love of the land to action.”

The settlement was announced nearly a year after young climate advocates in Montana won another historic victory in a case arguing that the state had violated their constitutional rights by prioritizing fossil fuel projects.

Three federal judges who had been appointed by former President Donald Trump angered climate groups last month when they granted the Biden administration’s request to dismiss Juliana v. United States, a case originally filed in 2015, which argues the U.S. government has violated the rights of children by continuing to support planet-heating fossil fuel extraction.

A judge in Hawaii last year dismissed the state’s request to dismiss the Navahine case. Hawaii officials argued that state laws aimed at reducing carbon emissions were “aspirational” and could not be used in legal arguments claiming the state had violated children’s rights.

“Transportation emissions are increasing and will increase at the rate we are going,” Judge Jeffrey Crabtree of the O’ahu 1st Circuit Court said as he denied the state’s request. “In other words, the alleged harms are not hypothetical or only in the future. They are current, ongoing, and getting worse.”

Gov. Josh Green, a Democrat, echoed Crabtree’s words on Thursday as he announced the settlement.

“We’re addressing the impacts of climate change today, and needless to say, this is a priority because we know now that climate change is here,” Green said. “It is not something that we’re considering in an abstract way in the future.”

Andrea Rogers, deputy director of U.S. strategy for Our Children’s Trust, said the “historic agreement offers a holistic roadmap for states and countries to follow around the world.”

The partnership between the plaintiffs and the state, said a plaintiff identified as Rylee Brooke K., “marks a pivotal step towards preserving Hawaii for future generations — one that will have a ripple effect on the world.”

“Being heard and moving forward in unity with the state to combat climate change is incredibly gratifying, and empowering,” said Rylee. “I hope our case inspires youth to always use their voices to hold leaders accountable for the future they will inherit.”

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